Can a Growth Mindset Boost Coding Skills?

Can a Growth Mindset Boost Coding Skills?

Nell O'rourkeEleanor O'Rourke holds a joint appointment in computer science and learning sciences.

Introductory computer science classes often have trouble retaining students, perhaps in part because they often promote a fixed mindset or the belief that great programmers are born and not made.

But what if computers offered positive feedback about the strategies and approaches used by novice programmers? Could this real-time information help instill a “growth” mindset or the attitude that most skills can be developed through dedication and hard work?

These are the foundational questions of a new research project by Northwestern University’s Eleanor O’Rourke, who has received $170,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation to explore whether a growth mindset can help improve retention and increase diversity in computer science classes.

 “There is a pressing need to train large numbers of computer scientists to meet the demands of our nation's economy,” said O’Rourke, assistant professor of learning sciences in the School of Education and Social Policy. “But many students struggle in introductory programming courses. Students’ mindsets about their intelligence have a strong impact on their academic performance, and as a result, growth mindset interventions have great potential to address the high drop-out rate and lack of diversity.” 

Typically, those with a fixed mindset suspect that their mistakes mean they aren’t up to the task. In contrast, people with a growth mindset relish a challenge and view errors as part of the learning process. 

O’Rourke, who holds a joint appointment in computer science and learning sciences, previously collaborated with Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck to explore whether growth mindset praise could be integrated into an educational math game. Dweck coined the term “growth mindset” in her 2006 book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.”

Now O’Rourke is working to develop a growth mindset intervention that leverages the programming environment. She and her team will design, build, and evaluate programming tools that help students develop the growth mindset by automatically detecting and praising good learning behaviors as students write code. 

The study is among the first looking into the growth mindset in the field of computer science and will provide insights about the process of learning to program, O’Rourke said.

Once developed and tested, the free tools will be offered to students at Northwestern and available online for students and teachers. “It has the potential to help patch the leaky STEM pipeline by improving the experiences, skills, and diversity of students who successfully complete programming courses and go on to work or research in STEM fields,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke, whose research sits at the intersection of Human-Computer Interaction and Learning Sciences, co-directs the Delta Lab with Northwestern professors Liz Gerber, associate professor of mechanical engineering; Matt Easterday, assistant professor of learning sciences; and Haoqi Zhang, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science. She is a founding faculty member of Northwestern's new joint PhD program in Computer Science and Learning Sciences.

“By exposing and praising the learning process, this intervention will teach students to attribute their successes and failures to malleable learning processes, rather than an innate aptitude for computer science,” O’Rourke said.



By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 9/28/18